Organisers billed Schmidt’s speech as a “first in history”, as it was the first time in the festival’s 35 year history that that the MacTaggart keynote speech was delivered “by someone not directly involved in the TV industry”.
Schmidt was invited to discuss the impact of the internet revolution on the television industry with statements such as, “almost every invention that has reinvigorated and helped the media industry thrive was at first forecast to destroy it”, his speech in dealt with that.
The former CEO, quoting executives from the newspaper industry at the advent of radio, radio executives at the advent of television, and television executives at the advent of VCR and PVR technologies, successfully argued that the fear of a new media technology — in this instance the internet — was unfounded.
In a tangentially connected section of the speech looking at the UK’s falling behind in innovation, however, Schmidt made some surprising statements about the country.
Citing the BBC and the independent UK networks, Schmidt lauded the UK for being a leader in media. He then warned that the UK was, however, in serious danger of missing out on a coming “golden age” of television. “So what could go wrong? Well, everything. If I may be so impolite (and here’s the insult Mark advised I throw in) your track record isn’t great!”
In Schmidt’s opinion, the UK, “the home of so many media-related inventions”, from photography to “computers in both concept and practice”, needs to again start nurturing polymaths, those whose expertise extends across a wide range of disciplines.
Pointing to Lewis Carroll — who not only wrote Alice In Wonderland, but was also a Mathematics tutor at Oxford — as an example, Schmidt decried a trend he recognised over the last century in the UK; “a drift to the humanities” at the detriment of engineering and the sciences.
Using himself and his industry colleagues as an example, he took on Lord Alan Sugar, Britain’s Donald Trump, for saying that engineers are no good at business.
“If the UK’s creative businesses want to thrive in the digital future, you need people who understand all facets of it integrated from the very beginning. Take a lead from the Victorians and ignore Lord Sugar: Bring engineers into your company at all levels, including the top.”
In closing his keynote address, which has previously been delivered by luminaries such as James and Rupert Murdoch, Schmidt took the opportunity to fight back against a sentiment that Google is “big, scary and trying to take over the world”. He also warned the television industry to keep “a close eye” on television regulators as a possible “future bogeyman”.
For the full transcript of the speech see here, or alternatively watch the speech, embedded below.